TIME russia

Putin’s Confessions on Crimea Expose Kremlin Media

Round table discussion marks 1st anniversary of reunification of Crimea with Russia
Vyacheslav Prokofyev—Itar-Tass/Corbis Dmitri Kiselyov, who runs the Kremlin’s media conglomerate, Rossiya Segodnya, attends a round table discussion dedicated to the first anniversary of the reunification of Crimea with the Russian Federation at Moscow's President Hotel, March 19, 2015.

Even as the Russian President admits deploying troops in Crimea, his chief propagandists, speaking to TIME, continue to deny it

It was an awkward test for many Russian journalists. Last spring, their President tried to mislead them—and the rest of the world—by denying that he had sent troops to conquer Crimea. Even as they witnessed Russian forces sweeping that Ukrainian peninsula, reporters on the Kremlin’s payroll were obliged to go along with Vladimir Putin’s claims.

But a year later, the President came clean. In a documentary aired last weekend, he admitted ordering his troops to seize Crimea weeks before it was annexed into Russia on March 18, 2014.

“I told all my colleagues, there were four of them, that the situation in Ukraine has forced us to start working on returning Crimea to Russia,” Putin says in the film, recounting a late-night meeting with his security chiefs in late February 2014. “We can’t leave that territory and the people who live there at the mercy of fate.”

The confession didn’t leave any good options for Russian newsmen like Dmitri Kiselyov, who runs the Kremlin’s media conglomerate Rossiya Segodnya and hosts a prime-time news and analysis show on state TV. He could either admit to misleading viewers last year and, in effect, blame Putin for the deception, or he could deny that any deception had occurred.

 

Confronted this week with the dilemma, Kiselyov stuck to denials.

“Vladimir Putin never changed his position,” he told TIME on Wednesday at the headquarters of his media corporation in Moscow. “Look, he never said that our troops aren’t there, because we always had a base there,” Kiselyov said, referring to the Russian naval base in the Crimean city of Sevastopol. Pressed on the identity of the troops who had surrounded and in some cases besieged Ukrainian military bases in Crimea last March, Kiselyov said: “The troops surrounding them were local self-defense forces, but not Russian troops.”

It was an odd position to take. Although critics of the Kremlin have often accused Russian state media of distorting facts and misleading viewers, this is the first time that such a momentous distortion has been so clearly and demonstrably false, contradicting not only the version of events presented in most independent media but also out of sync with Putin’s own statements.

In early March 2014, Putin was asked during a press conference to identify the troops who were fanning out across Crimea, driving Russian military vehicles but wearing no identifying markers on their uniforms. “Why don’t you take a look at the post-Soviet states,” Putin answered, according to a transcript on the Kremlin website. “There are many uniforms there that are similar. You can go to a store and buy any kind of uniform.” The journalist persisted: Were they Russian soldiers or not? Those were local self-defense units,” Putin said.

Compare that line to his confession in the documentary—which was titled, Crimea: Homeward Bound—and it is clear that Putin did change his position. Not only does the President admit in the film to ordering his security forces to take control of Crimea last spring, but he also claims to have overseen the operation personally. “Our advantage was that I was personally dealing with it,” he says.

This came on top of Putin’s admission last April, a month after the annexation, that “Russian servicemen did back the Crimean self-defense forces,” and that in doing so, they acted in “a civil but a decisive and professional manner.” Moreover, the dramatic re-enactments of the seizure of Crimea shown in the documentary this month clearly depict the invading troops as Russian military, not local self-defense units.

Yet Kiselyov still continues to deny that Russian troops ever intervened in Crimea. “They were near by, at the base,” he tells TIME. “If there had been a conflict there, they would have intervened. But they did not intervene.”

He is not the only senior figure in the Kremlin’s media empire to take this peculiar stance. Last fall, TIME put a similar round of questions to Margarita Simonyan, the editor in chief of RT, the state-funded television network that broadcasts around the world in English, Spanish and Arabic. She also stuck to the claims that Putin made in March of last year about the Russian troops in Crimea being local self-defense forces. Asked about the apparent change in Putin’s story after that, she replied, “He never said that we fooled you… He did not admit that earlier statements were untrue.”

Since the annexation of Crimea, a similar debate has been raging over the role that Russian troops have played in the war in eastern Ukraine, where more than 6,000 people have been killed amid fighting between Ukrainian military forces and Russia’s proxy militias. Even as Russian and foreign journalists have documented the presence of Russian military hardware and servicemen on those battlefields, Putin has repeatedly denied sending any of his forces to fight alongside Ukrainian separatists, which the Kremlin has also referred to as local self-defense forces.

Asked on Wednesday whether Putin might be similarly deceiving the public on this question, just as he did last year with the invasion of Crimea, Kiselyov replied that he was “100% sure” that there are no Russian troops in eastern Ukraine. And what if a year from now the President admits in another documentary that he did send his forces to fight in those regions? “So far that hasn’t happened,” Kiselyov said. But if it does, Russians shouldn’t expect their fourth estate to admit to spreading falsehoods. It is apparently easier to stick to their denials.

TIME russia

Putin Puts Russia’s Northern Fleet on ‘Full Alert’ in Response to NATO Drills

Putin has finally re-emerged into the public eye after ten days

Russian President Vladimir Putin put the nation’s northern fleet on full alert in the Arctic Ocean this week, as animosity between the Kremlin and NATO continues to simmer.

The order, which was handed down early Monday, allows for the mobilization of 38,000 military personnel, 3,360 pieces of equipment, 41 ships, 15 submarines and 110 airplanes, according to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.

“New challenges and threats of military security demand the further heightening of military capabilities of the armed forces and special attention will be paid to the state of the newly formed strategic merging [of forces] in the North,” said Shoigu, according to state media outlet Sputnik.

The mobilization of the Russian fleet appears to have been triggered by ongoing NATO-led military drills across northern and eastern European, including maritime exercises in the Black Sea.

On Monday, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexey Meshkov accused NATO of conducting operations that were effectively undermining one of the world’s most stable regions.

“Such NATO actions lead to destabilization of the situation and increasing tensions in northeastern Europe,” Meshkov added, according to the Russia’s TASS news agency.

However, NATO has argued that Russia has continually stoked hostilities throughout the region by annexing the Crimea Peninsula in Ukraine and repeatedly violating European airspace.

NATO spokesperson Oana Lungescu tells TIME that Russian snap exercises were a “serious concern” and completely out of proportion with the bloc’s drills.

By comparison, NATO only had 1,200 sailors onboard six ships in the Black Sea, she says, while ally Norway is conduting parallel national drills involving 5,000 troops.

“Russia has conducted about a dozen snap exercises over the past two years,” adds Lungescu. “Russia’s takeover of Crimea was done under the guise of a snap exercise. Russia’s snap exercises run counter to the spirit of the Vienna Document on confidence and security-building measures.”

Earlier this week, Putin admitted during a documentary broadcasted on Sunday that he considered putting the nation’s nuclear capabilities on alert to prevent outside agents from interfering with the Kremlin’s forced annexation of the Crimea peninsula last March.

Read next: Vladimir Putin Admits to Weighing Nuclear Option During Crimea Conflict

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TIME russia

Vladimir Putin Admits to Weighing Nuclear Option During Crimea Conflict

RUSSIA-UKRAINE-CRISIS-CRIMEA-DOCUMENTARY
Dmitry Serebryakov —AFP/Getty Images A woman looks at Russian President Vladimir Putin speaking as she watches an internet broadcast of the documentary Homeward Bound, on March 15, 2015 in Moscow.

"We were ready to do it"

Russian President Vladimir Putin said he considered putting the country’s vast nuclear arsenal on alert to prevent outside agents from stopping the Kremlin’s forced annexation of the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine last year.

Putin’s admission was aired during a prerecorded documentary called Homeward Bound, which was broadcast on a state-backed television network Sunday in the run-up to the first anniversary of Crimea’s annexation later this week.

In the interview, Putin claimed he began hatching plans to seize the peninsula after Ukrainian President Viktor F. Yanukovych fled the country following months of protests. Putin also alleged he personally delivered direct orders to the country’s armed forces, as thousands of elite Russian soldiers fanned out across Crimea last March.

When asked whether Moscow’s nuclear capabilities were also on standby, Putin answered bluntly: “We were ready to do it.”

The airing of Putin’s nuclear comments comes as the Russian strongman has seemingly vanished from the public sphere only days after a prominent opposition leader was assassinated within earshot of the Kremlin.

The President was reportedly last seen on March 5, fueling rumors that the 62-year-old had fallen ill or was caught up in an internal power struggle.

TIME energy

Oil Prices Changing the Face Of Global Geopolitics

petrol-pump-closeup
Getty Images

Russia and Venezuela are two of many to be involved in the upcoming changes

In a documentary that aired recently on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s popular The Fifth Estate program, an allegory of Vladimir Putin was presented. The wily Russian president was described growing up in a shabby St. Petersburg apartment, where he would often corner rats.

Now, punished by low oil prices and Western sanctions against Russian incursions in Ukraine/ Crimea, Putin is himself the cornered rat. Many wonder, and fear, what he will do if conditions in Russia become increasingly desperate.

In the last six months oil prices have plunged over 50 percent and the Russian economy is hurting. The country now faces slowing economic growth, a depressed ruble, and runaway inflation estimated to be up to 150 percent on basic foodstuffs.

The Kremlin is counting on austerity cuts to help balance its budget, which has revenues coming in at $45 billion lower than earlier projections. The exception, significantly, is defense. With the military exempted from the austerity plan, it begs the question of whether Putin will “play the nationalist card,” such as he did in Crimea, in an effort to strengthen greater Russia during a period of economic weakness.

Georgia On His Mind

We are already seeing this to be the case. As Oilprice.com reported last week, Putin is set to absorb South Ossetia – Georgia’s breakaway republic that declared itself independent in 1990. Under an agreement “intended to legalize South Ossetia’s integration with Russia,” Russia would invest 2.8 million rubles (US$50 million) to “fund the socio-economic development of South Ossetia,” according to Agenda.GE, a Tbilisi-based news site.

The situation is analogous to Crimea because, like Crimea, South Ossetia contains a significant Russian-speaking population with ties to the Motherland.

If Putin succeeds in annexing the tiny province, it will be a real poke in the eye to the United States, which provoked Russia in the early 1990s by promoting construction of a pipeline between the former Soviet republics of Azerbaijan and Georgia. The BTC pipeline moves oil from Baku in Azerbaijan to Tbilisi in Georgia and then onward to Ceyhan on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast.

BTC started operating in 2006. Then, two years later, Putin built his own pipeline to cut out Georgia. The South Ossetia pipeline run by Gazprom stretches 75 kilometers from South Ossetia to Russia.

The current move on South Ossetia is a way for Russia to assert its energy independence in the face of Western sanctions and low oil prices.

It comes as Russia announced plans to divert all of its natural gas crossing Ukraine to a route via Turkey. As Bloomberg reported last week, Gazprom will send 63 billion cubic meters through a proposed link under the Black Sea to Turkey – after the earlier South Stream pipeline, a $45-billion project that would have crossed Bulgaria, was scrapped by Russia amid opposition from the European Union. By sending the gas to Turkey and on to Europe via Greece, Gazprom is in effect sending Europe an ultimatum: build pipelines to European markets, or we will sell the gas to other customers.

According to one observer, the proposed land grab in South Ossetia combined with the snub to Europe by shifting its gas to Turkey and bypassing Ukraine, is a classic Putin power play:

“Russia is preparing to absorb a province of neighboring Georgia, and delivering an ultimatum to Europe that it could lose much of the Russian gas on which it relies,” Steve LeVine writes in Quartz. “Putin has argued that the west is simply intent on ousting him and weakening Russia… Faced with these perceived attempts to undercut him and his country, Putin suggests that he has no choice but to pull around the wagons and stick it out. This could go on a long time.”

Plunging Oil Prices Crash The Stock Market?

When oil crashed in 2008 all hell was breaking loose. Lehman Brothers went up in smoke and stocks were in a nosedive. Oil has once again crashed -50% in only 6 months but equities haven’t followed – at least not yet! Will stocks hold up going forward? You might find it hard to believe just how much wealth could have been created last time this happened. If we learn from the past, this could be a second chance to make an absolute fortune.

Some have speculated that the oil price crash was orchestrated by the Saudis, possibly in collusion with the United States and other Gulf states, to punish Iran, its main political and religious rival in the Middle East.

Whether or not that is true, there is no denying the effects of a low oil price on Iran’s economy. “Iran is already missing tens of billions of dollars in oil revenue due to Western sanctions and years of economic mismanagement under former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad,” Bloomberg reported on Jan. 7. Like Russia, Iran is looking at spending cuts in next year’s budget, which is based on an overly-optimistic $72 a barrel crude oil price.

However, unlike Russia, which is “circling the wagons” and pulling further away from the West currently, the oil price drop could actually lead to more of a détente between Iran and Western countries. In a speech on Jan. 4, President Hassan Rouhani said Iran’s economy “cannot develop in isolation from the rest of the world,” while at the same time, Iran’s foreign minister was negotiating a nuclear deal that could see the lifting of UN sanctions, the Washington Post observed.

Then there is the cooperation between the West and Iran over the terrorist group ISIS. The National Post’s J.L. Granatsein wrote in a column on Tuesday that Iran has deployed substantial numbers of its Revolutionary Guard elite Al Qods brigade into Iraq and Syria to fight ISIS, along with Western allies including the US, Britain, France and Canada. This is despite Iran’s support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria’s president Assad.

“Politics makes strange bedfellows indeed, but not much can be stranger than this. Led by the Americans, hitherto the Great Satan to the Iranian leaders, the ties between the West and Iran are becoming tighter, each side reacting to the horrors of Islamist fundamentalism throughout the region,” Granatsein writes. “The Iranians have been hurt by sanctions, and they are being wracked even more by the falling price of oil. Easing curbs on trade and Iranian banks may mitigate the effects of the oil price collapse.”

Venezuela Bracing For The Worst

The other major loser in the oil price collapse, Venezuela, may not see such a positive outcome. Wracked by decades of economic mismanagement by Hugo Chávez, the South American oil producer was already struggling to pay its debts when new president Nicolás Maduro came to power.

Now, with inflation running at 60 percent and lines forming outside state grocery stores for food and other basic supplies, Maduro faces the specter of serious social unrest if conditions do not improve. The country has some of the world’s cheapest gasoline prices, but Maduro has refused to end fuel subsidies, fearing, no doubt, a repeat of widespread riots in 1989 that left hundreds dead after gasoline prices were allowed to rise.

Venezuela is even more dependent than Russia on the price of oil, earning some 96 percent of its foreign currency from oil sales, putting Maduro in the untenable position of either borrowing more, despite crushing debts, or slashing spending:

“With only $20 billion left in its reserves, and $50 billion in debt to China alone, Venezuela appears headed toward a choice between abandoning its oil giveaways and defaulting on its debts, or starving its own population to the point of revolt,”according to the Washington Post.

This post originally appeared on OilPrice.com.

Read more from Oilprice.com:

TIME europe

German Chancellor Says Russia’s Actions Are Unjustifiable

Chancellor Angela Merkel in the lower house of parliament Bundestag in Berlin, Nov. 26, 2014.
Stefanie Loos—Reuters Chancellor Angela Merkel in the lower house of parliament Bundestag in Berlin, Nov. 26, 2014.

Angela Merkel appears to be taking a tougher stance against Vladimir Putin

German Chancellor Angela Merkel Wednesday suggested she is prepared for a drawn-out confrontation with Russian President Vladimir Putin over the Ukraine crisis

“We need patience and staying power to overcome the crisis,” Merkel told German lawmakers in a speech to Berlin’s parliament. She added that economic sanctions on Russia “remain unavoidable” as long as government forces continue to battle pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, Bloomberg reports.

Merkel continued that while the crisis may have been triggered by Russia’s concerns over the impact of Ukraine’s free trade agreement with the European Union, “none of this justifies or excuses Russia’s annexation of Crimea.”

Russia’s actions, she said, interrupt “the peaceful international order and breach international law.”

MORE: Russia wants a “100% guarantee” that Ukraine won’t join NATO

The German chancellor’s speech to parliament follows an address Merkel made in Australia Monday, during which more openly critical of Putin than in the past, suggesting her patience with Putin is running out after months of negotiations. Merkel and Putin met during the G20 conference, but that reportedly did not go well for either leader.

[Bloomberg]

TIME Ukraine

Crimea’s Gay Community Moves Out as Russian Homophobia Sets In

Yegor Guskov and Bogdan Zinchenko, who owned a gay bar in Sevastopol, feared for their business — and their family

The Qbar was always an awkward fit in the nightlife of Sevastopol. It was the only place in the Ukrainian city to host the occasional drag show, and certainly the only place where the all-male waitstaff wore booty shorts beneath their aprons. In other parts of Europe, and even many cities in mainland Ukraine, the camp décor would have raised few eyebrows. But Sevastopol is a macho place. It houses the Russian Black Sea naval fleet, and its streets are studded with the homes and memorials of veterans from Russian wars going back to the 18th century. So even before Russia decided in March of this year to annex the city from Ukraine along with the rest of the Crimean peninsula, the locals, both Russian and Ukrainian, looked at the Qbar with a bit of suspicion.

“For a long time they were afraid,” says Yegor Guskov, who ran the bar along with his partner, Bogdan Zinchenko, since it opened in 2007. Mostly out of a fear of the unfamiliar, the Ukrainian officials who worked next door at City Hall were “worried at first that someone would fondle them if they came inside,” he says. “But then they realized it was safe, and the food is really good. So they started coming to eat.” By day the bar would be full of dowdy bureaucrats on their lunch breaks; by night it was packed with lithe young men and women taking Sambuca shots and dancing to Britney Spears. It filled a niche, and business prospered.

But like a lot of things about life in Sevastopol, all of that changed after the Russian annexation. In response to this year’s pro-Western revolution in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin sent troops to occupy the region of Crimea, many of them fanning out from the Russian naval base in Sevastopol. The invasion quickly helped install a new set of leaders in the region, who organized a slipshod referendum to call for Crimea to secede from Ukraine. When the vote passed with an overwhelming majority – most of Crimea’s residents are ethnic Russians – Putin signed a decree absorbing the peninsula into the Russian Federation. Its two million citizens thus found themselves living under Russian law.

For the gay community in Crimea, the most worrying piece of legislation was the Russian ban on “homosexual propaganda,” which Putin signed in 2012. Although the law is billed as an effort to protect Russian children from learning about “non-traditional sexual relationships,” its critics say the law encourages homophobia, signaling to Russians that gays are somehow inferior and should not be allowed to insist on their equality in public.

Since March, the new leaders of Crimea have embraced these principles with gusto. The head of the regional government, Sergei Aksyonov, said that the West’s liberal attitude toward gay rights would be “intolerable and unacceptable” on his peninsula during a meeting with his ministers last month. “In Crimea we don’t welcome such people, we don’t need them,” he said, referring to homosexuals. If they ever try to stage a pride parade or any other public events, Aksyonov warned that the local police and paramilitary forces would “take three minutes to clarify what [sexual] orientation is right.”

That sort of discrimination began to hit home for the Qbar in April, after Moscow appointed a retired officer of the Black Sea fleet to serve as the acting head of Sevastopol. Through their patrons from City Hall, the bar’s owners learned that “someone had whispered to the new leadership that they have a gay bar sitting right underneath them,” says Guskov. A series of fire and tax inspections followed, hitting the bar with fines and official reprimands that made its managers understand they weren’t welcome anymore.

At first they tried some cosmetic remedies. They removed the Ukrainian-language sign from their door and made the waiters put on trousers instead of their trademark denim shorts. They even took the letter Q out of the name of the bar, Guskov says, because the local officials said it looked like a symbol for sodomy. “We changed the format,” he says. “We tried to make it into a normal eatery.”

But none of that made them feel safe in the city they call home. Not only are the pair among the most open of Sevastopol’s chronically closeted gays, but Guskov and Zinchenko have a two-year-old son, Timur, from a surrogate mother. The chance that some technocrat could question their custody of Timur, plus their desire to have more children, convinced them that it was time to leave Crimea behind.

In August, they joined the quiet stream of émigrés – thousands of them, even by conservative estimates – who have left the peninsula and moved to mainland Ukraine since the annexation. The largest groups have been from Crimea’s ethnic minorities, primarily Muslim Tatars and ethnic Ukrainians, who have both raised alarms over repression and discrimination since their towns and cities became a part of Russia. But the region’s gay men and women have also been moving away, as much out of protest at the annexation as out of a fear of becoming the targets of a state-backed campaign of homophobia.

Guskov believes that campaign won’t be long in coming. “When it became clear that Russia needs to prepare for isolation from Europe, it needed to smear the Europeans somehow, and the simplest is to spread this idea of perverted, decadent Gayropeans,” he says, using the derogatory term for Europeans—”Gayropeytsy”—that has entered the Russian vernacular. “So this witch hunt at home is needed as a tool to smear opponents abroad,” he says.

In Crimea, adds Zinchenko, the warning signs are easy to see. If elderly neighbors were happy before to coddle Timur and offer his parents advice on how to raise him, now the Soviet tradition of the “donos” – denouncing an acquaintance to the police – has started to return, he says. “People are writing these accusations against their neighbors just to show how patriotic they are, how loyal,” he says. “These are all signals for us. They show that we can become a target.”

That suspicion is what forced Guskov and Zinchenko to give up their business in Sevastopol, pack up their things and moved to Kiev. Along the way, the New York City-based photographer Misha Friedman joined them to document their journey, which he felt was emblematic of the transformation that Crimea, and the rest of Ukraine, have undergone since the annexation. “They just struck me as a normal happy family,” the photographer says. “They just got caught up in the politics of bigotry.” As they make their new home in the capital, they’re thinking of opening up a new Qbar, which will have to deal with a lot more competition in Kiev’s vibrant gay scene. But this seems like a minor worry compared to the risks they faced in the new Sevastopol.

Read next: What the Vatican Really Said About Homosexuality

TIME russia

Hollywood Stars Say Thanks But No Thanks to Russia

Western celebrities were once willing to make public appearances in Russia. With few exceptions, the stars have stopped coming

On Aug. 14, the actor Steven Seagal arrived at Russia’s premier weapons expo and, in the company of several arms dealers, strolled to a display of automatic rifles. A crowd of reporters and onlookers gathered around to watch as he handled one of the weapons, some even climbing on top of a military vehicle in order to get a better look. Standing next to Seagal, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin then offered his thanks to the American guest and, given the state of affairs between their countries, acknowledged the costs of Seagal’s apparently undiminished affection for Russia. “A lot of people criticize him at home,” Rogozin told the crowd. “It is not an easy time for him right now.”

The words of sympathy were not misplaced. It is a challenging time for Western celebrities who have made a habit of visiting Russia, either for pleasure or profit. Since President Vladimir Putin annexed the Ukrainian region of Crimea in March, the United States and the European Union have imposed sanctions on members of the Russian elite, including Rogozin, who oversees Russia’s military-industrial complex—and anyone who does business with the targeted officials risks being sanctioned as well. But for Western celebrities the more immediate danger of a visit to Russia is the damage it could do to a star’s career, says Samuel Aroutiounian, the leading go-between for Russians seeking to hire Hollywood stars to attend events in Russia.

In the decade he has spent in this business, working as a celebrity talent broker for a New York City-based agency called Platinum Rye, Aroutiounian says it’s never been more difficult to line up appearances in Russia, not even basic endorsement deals with Russian companies. The offer of bigger paychecks—which usually range from five to seven figures, depending on the caliber of the star and the outrageousness of the event—has not done much to change their minds. “These people are already super rich,” he says of the celebrities. “So they’re much more concerned about not killing their careers.” And in the current political climate, he says, “They don’t know what will happen to them when they come back home, you know? They will take a lot of heat.”

Even a year ago this was not an issue. The growth in the Russian market for Hollywood movies, as well as what had been gradual improvements in the country’s image in the West, had helped persuade some of the biggest names in Hollywood, like Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons, to make appearances in Russia in the last few years. The local advertising market proved enticing enough in 2010 for Bruce Willis to do a series of ads for a Russian lender called Trust Bank. (In his TV commercials, Willis is shown getting ready to jump out of a speeding van during a car chase when his cell phone rings. “Hello,” he says, “this is Trust Bank, how can I help you?”)

Later that year, a Russian charity asked Aroutiounian to bring as many stars as possible to its gala in St. Petersburg, failing to mention that Putin would use it as a chance to make his musical debut. “I just brought whoever was available,” the broker recalls. “It was winter in St. Petersburg, so for some people it was too cold. Other people had family time, because it was around Christmas.” When Putin got on the stage to sing, wearing a black suit with an open collar, a whole stable of Hollywood celebrities stood up to applaud his rendition of “Blueberry Hill”, including Kevin Costner, Goldie Hawn, Kurt Russell, Vincent Cassel and Monica Belucci. “It was one of those moments,” Aroutiounian says, “when even I was, like, ‘Wow, is this really happening?’” (In the clip of Putin’s performance, which has been viewed nearly four million times on YouTube, Aroutiounian stands next to a cheerfully applauding Sharon Stone.)

Like Putin’s many other Hollywood-flavored appearances—including the times he went to watch martial arts with Jean-Claude Van Damme—the “Blueberry Hill” stunt did not merely serve to indulge his vanity. It also helped demonstrate to his electorate and to his foreign detractors that Russia was not a pariah state. It showed that its leader, for all his public posturing with weapons and heavy machinery, wanted to be liked, and without the applause and the acceptance of the international beau monde, his charisma would come up a little short.

Until the events of this year, many American stars saw little problem with their role in this equation, says Howard Bragman, a long-time Hollywood publicist. “Most of the young stars today have no idea what the Cold War is or was, unless they did a movie about it,” he says. “Russia just doesn’t leave the same taste in their mouths that it does for people who are older.” The only downside, he says, is when stars get mixed up in politics that their handlers failed to warn them about, as in the infamous case of Hillary Swank.

In 2011, the two-time Oscar-winning actress went to the Russian region of Chechnya, where she had been hired to celebrate the birthday of its Kremlin-appointed ruler, Ramzan Kadyrov. The resulting outcry from human rights organizations, which have criticized Kadyrov’s record, prompted Swank to apologize for having graced the occasion with her presence. “Shame on me,” she said on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, promising to give her six-figure paycheck for the engagement to charity. “The bottom line is that I should know where I’m going, and do better research.”

Aroutiounian, speaking by phone from Los Angeles, says the pitfalls of the Swank affair now apply not only to Chechnya but to the rest of Russia as well. “Everybody knows what happened when Hillary Swank went to Russia,” he says. “Since Russia is basically in a war right now, everybody is laying low.”

Well, not everybody. There are some American actors who still visit Russia. Mickey Rourke, who came to Red Square on Aug. 11 to buy a T-shirt imprinted with Putin’s face, called the Russian President a “real gentleman,” but added that his primary interest in the motherland was his Russian girlfriend. Seagal took things a bit further. Before touring the arms market on Aug. 14, he became the first American celebrity to visit Crimea since its annexation, giving a performance with his blues band in the city of Sevastopol. Hugging it out afterward with the leader of the Russian biker gang who organized the concert, Seagal declared, “I am Russian,” referring to his Russian ancestry. The crowd went wild, though the statement was nothing new for Seagal. He has long expressed his admiration for Russia and praised what he calls its “wonderful” leadership, and the crisis in Ukraine has apparently done nothing to change his mind.

It has, however, obliged him to take more criticism than usual for his visits to Russia, and it seems to be getting him down. In a statement published on his website on Aug. 13, he said he was “once again deeply saddened” by the Western coverage of his concert in Crimea. “Sadly,” he wrote, “we live in a world where any form of innocence can be twisted for sensational headlines and maybe dark political motives.” Seeing that need to defend his innocence after another appearance in Russia, other stars could be forgiven for simply choosing to stay away.

TIME

Putin’s Approval Rating Reaches Record High in Russia

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Alexei Nikolsky—AFP/Getty Images Russia's President Vladimir Putin smiles while speaking with journalists in Itamaraty Palace in Brazilia, early on July 17, 2014.

Russians are also satisfied with their freedom, military and elections

Amid the conflict in Ukraine and growing discord with European neighbors and Western countries, Vladimir Putin’s approval rating among Russians has climbed to its highest level in years, according to a new Gallup poll.

Eighty-three percent of Russians approve of the job Russia’s president is doing. This ties his top rating in 2008 and marks a 29 percentage point increase from Putin’s rating in 2013.

For the first time since 2008, a majority of Russians say their country’s leadership is moving them in the right direction. In addition, 78% have confidence in their military, 64% in their national government, and 39% say that they are confident in the honesty of Russian elections.

But Russians’ positivity isn’t limited to their government. A record high of 65% of Russians said they were satisfied with their freedom in 2014. A significant group–35 %–also said they thought economic conditions were improving.

While Russians are satisfied with their own government, the poll showed they are increasingly turning away from Western countries. Both U.S. and European Union leadership had single digit approval ratings. One country Russians do approve of is China. The poll showed Russians’ approval for China soared this year to a record 42%. In recent months, the two countries have shown close economic ties, signing a $400 billion gas deal this spring.

TIME Ukraine

U.S. Warned Of Unsafe Airspace Over Crimea, But Not Where MH17 Crashed

An armed pro-Russian separatist stands at a site of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash in the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region, July 17, 2014.
Maxim Zmeyev—Reuters An armed pro-Russian separatist stands at a site of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash in the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region, July 17, 2014.

The Federal Aviation Administration warned U.S. air carriers not to fly in a region about 200 miles away from where Malaysian crash occurred in Ukraine.

Earlier this year the Federal Aviation Administration banned American air carriers from flying over part of the disputed area between Russia and Ukraine over safety concerns, but the area where Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crashed on Thursday was not included in this restricted airspace.

The agency warned American aircraft on April 25 against flying over the Crimean peninsula and the surrounding waters after Russia, which had moved to annex the territory, claimed control over that airspace.

“In the FAA’s view, the potential for civil aircraft to receive confusing and conflicting air traffic control instructions from both Ukrainian and Russian ATS providers while operating in the portion of the Simferopol (UKFV) FIR covered by this SFAR is unsafe and presents a potential hazard to civil flight operations in the disputed airspace,” the agency wrote. “In addition, political and military tension between Ukraine and the Russian Federation remains high, and compliance with air traffic control instructions issued by the authorities of one country could result in a civil aircraft being misidentified as a threat and intercepted or otherwise engaged by air defense forces of the other country.”

But the Donetsk region where Flight 17 reportedly crashed is roughly 200 miles northeast from the restricted zone. The map below was included in the FAA advisory.

 

 

FAA
TIME russia

Ukraine Rebels Call Putin a Coward After Russian Inaction

President Vladimir Putin in Kremlin, July 4.
Alexei Nikolsky—Itar-Tasss/ZumaPress President Vladimir Putin in Kremlin, July 4.

Early promises of help from Russia go unfulfilled

The rebel commander in eastern Ukraine was sure Russia’s tanks would soon come grinding over the border to his rescue. He even had an idea of what would provoke the invasion—“130 corpses,” he told TIME. “When they see that on Russian TV, they’ll come and help us.”

That was in the middle of April, and since then the body count in eastern Ukraine has far surpassed that figure. Even the commander himself, who went by the nickname Romashka, is now among the dead, having been shot by a Ukrainian sniper in his stronghold of Slavyansk at the beginning of May. No Russian troops ever came to help him.

For the Ukrainian government that has been a saving grace, allowing its army to force the pro-Russian militants into retreat over the weekend, killing scores of them in the process. But for Russian President Vladimir Putin, this turn in the conflict presents a painful dilemma. His pledges of support for the separatists now seem like false promises to the rebel leaders—and to their many supporters in Russia—and they have begun openly accusing Putin of cowardice and betrayal. The patriotic spell that he cast on his electorate with the annexation of Crimea in March now seems to have lifted, and his sky-high approval ratings are now likely to come down to earth.

The change in tone is already evident on Russia’s propaganda channels, which still depict the rebel fighters as heroes and martyrs—but not a part of any Russian war. “No one is talking about sending in troops anymore. That conversation is over,” says Mikhail Leontiev, one of the leading spin doctors on state-controlled TV. “Now the people need to understand that if Russia falls into this military trap, it will be worst of all for the people of eastern Ukraine, even for the fighters among them,” he tells TIME.

The fighters would beg to differ. In endless missives to the Russian leadership over the past few months, they have asked with growing anger and desperation for the Kremlin to send in troops or at least provide them with advanced weaponry. “We don’t have the means to fight so many tanks,” Igor Girkin, the rebel commander in eastern Ukraine who goes by the nom de guerre Igor Strelkov, said in a video appeal to Moscow on June 19. “I’m still hoping that Moscow has enough shame to take some kind of measures.”

But instead of offering much material assistance, Putin’s allies seem to have launched a slander campaign against Girkin and his men, even accusing them of “crying like women” about a lack of firepower before abandoning the rebel stronghold of Slavyansk this weekend. “He gave up the city without any pressure from the Ukrainian side,” Sergei Kurginyan, another prominent Kremlin propagandist, said in a video denunciation of the rebels. “No one was advancing against him.”

This claim seemed out of sync with the fighting on the ground. For days before the rebels fled Slavyansk on July 5 the Ukrainian army had besieged them, bombarding their positions with heavy artillery and cutting off supplies of food, electricity and water. Indeed, in the first week of June, Kurginyan had himself campaigned for Russia to send military contractors to assist Girkin and his men.

But that was before Putin made his sudden turn toward the role of a peacemaker in Ukraine. His reasons were pragmatic. Western sanctions had already broken financial ties—and frozen bank accounts—that Kremlin elites had spent years nurturing. The next round of sanctions would likely have sent Russia’s economy into a recession, putting at risk the state programs and paychecks that feed Putin’s loyal bureaucracy. A full-scale invasion would also risk a military quagmire that would further drain the Russian budget, as Ukraine’s army has mustered a force impressive enough to put up a serious fight. So in late June, Putin asked his legislature to withdraw his permission for the use of military force in Ukraine, and he began calling for peace talks in league with Western mediators.

The rebels were not the only ones to see this as a sign of duplicity. Russian nationalists have begun to turn on him as well, posting diatribes and even music videos that seek to goad Putin into war, juxtaposing his pledges to “defend the Russian world” with images of bombed-out villages and Russian corpses in Ukraine. “We gave them hope,” Alexander Dugin, one of the leading nationalist ideologues in Russia, said during a television appearance last week. “When we said we’re a united Russian civilization, this didn’t just come from a few patriotic forces. It came from the President!”

And it will not be easy for Putin to back away from those promises. A nationwide poll taken at the end of June suggested that 40% of Russians supported military intervention in Ukraine, up from 31% only a month earlier. This segment of society is largely made up of young, poor and undereducated nationalists, as well as elderly people nostalgic for the glory of the Soviet Union, according to Lev Gudkov, the director of the Levada Center, the independent polling agency that conducted those surveys. After the Russian annexation of Crimea, the euphoria among these parts of the electorate helped push Putin’s approval ratings toward record highs of over 80% “The revival of those strong imperialist feelings, playing on the idea of a fallen nation rising up, all of that ensured the sudden upswing in support for Putin,” Gudkov said. “But I don’t think that can last, probably not even past this fall.”

The all-time peak in Putin’s popularity, Gudkov points out, came right after the Russian invasion of Georgia in August 2008, when his approval ratings jumped to 88% before quickly getting dragged down by the effects of the global financial crisis. By the spring of 2009, they were down to 55%—propped up by what Gudkov calls the apathetic mass of civil servants and state dependents who support Putin “because there is not other choice.”

That slump is now likely to recur. The Russian economy is once again stagnating, this time from the effects of the Western sanctions, and there are already signs that consumers are suffering from the resulting slump in the value of the ruble. New car sales, for instance, fell by a remarkable 17% last month, and the estimated cost of developing Crimea—roughly $18 billion—will put further strain on the federal budget. Such bread-and-butter problems are not enough to dissuade the jingoist minority in Russia, and they are certainly not much help to rebels fighting and dying in eastern Ukraine.

But as the last few weeks have shown, Putin is not the Napoleon many of them believed him to be.

 

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